Monday, December 13, 2010

Pure Cycling: The Madison

Balanced Sports columnist Ben Roberts takes a look at the Australian Madison Championship.

Cycling is for the early part of the 21st century what golf was in the latter part of the 20th century, the fashionable sporting pursuit of the upper middle class. Weekend warriors all over the metropolis’ of Australia slip into their Lycra every weekend and pedal off on their dream machines. Dream machines who's purchase has increased their planned retirement age by two years. Financial planners are trained to listen with understanding, they too have their own piece of elite sporting equipment in the garage.

They dream that they too could fly up the side of the Tourmalet, the Telegraph, or even Alpe d'Huez. They know the tactics, conserve energy now, attack the field later; attack now and make them catch you.

In the depths of the southern hemisphere winter bleary eyed white collar workers stare blankly at their computer screens. Asked for the monthly figures by executive management they reply with “Evans 24 seconds down on...I mean still working on them”. The 2.30am refrains of Messrs Liggett and Sherwen rolling around their head - “Bernard Eisel now comes to the front..he’s there for his man Mark Cavendish.”

The tour is more than a cycling race, it is a lifestyle choice whether you are in Marseilles or Melbourne. Every July those watching get a tour of the French countryside, a lesson in French history, even a physiological update that will assist them to take the stairs rather than the lift when trekking between accounts and marketing. They sip 'Australian Sparkling' as though they own a chateau in Champagne, and eat fresh bread and produce with the vigour of a hard-working Breton farmer. The race itself becomes secondary to the lifestyle that goes along with it. Maybe I will break a cycling code by saying so, but as a cycling race, Le Tour, is not the best.

My favourite cycling race is where chaos and organisation come together, the Madison. Conducted within a sterile velodrome it lacks the sociological, viticultural, and perhaps agricultural appeals of the tour; but it more than makes up for it with the excitement of the race.

The Madison to an uninitiated watcher could appear less an organised competition than an overcrowded and under managed training ride. The combination of having teams of two, one racing and one resting but still riding slowly, and the shorter laps of a velodrome can make it completely impossible to ascertain what riders are in fact leading. Originating out of New York's Madison Square, the race sought to replace the original incarnation of six-day racing which became considered hazardous to rider health. Such decisions in cycling history have been a rarity by either organisers or riders themselves!

In shifts of between two and four laps each rider seeks to benefit of their own team before linking up with their partner, literally, and launching them into action. Riders seek to be first across the line after pre-ordained laps, awarded points for doing so – but the real action comes in the pursuit to be 'laps up' on the field.

The race takes all the brute aggression, bike control, and wits that a cyclist could have. It is not for the faint of heart, crashes regular. Switching back and forth between riders keeps the race pace at an exhausting level for spectators, let alone the riders themselves. Spectators engaged at all times, every 10 or 20 laps as the field sprints for points, and as the race wears on the absolute need to take a lap by teams will have them on the edge of their seats.

Lapping the field is the primary objective of the teams, even with zero points a team will win the Madison if they can lap the other riders more often. The winners of a Madison will have been able to collect sprinting points along the way but also have conserved enough energy to have attacked the field at the right time to move one or two laps ahead. Not only this but they must remain aware of their rivals lest they too attack the field.

Friday evenings Australian Madison Championship was won by the pairing of Australia's anointed young cyclists, Cameron Meyer and Jack Bobridge. For the second year running I watched live the championship, enjoying every moment.

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